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Culture news
Comrade scientist
02.28.2007 16:33

stalin By Susan Eisenhower

Special to The St. Petersburg Times

As the 20th century recedes, it becomes increasingly difficult to explain to younger generations the peculiar combination of idealism, naivete, cynicism and brutality that was the hallmark of that century’s totalitarian states.

Ethan Pollock’s “Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars” looks at this phenomenon through the lens of Soviet science policy in the immediate postwar period to explain Josef Stalin’s determination to articulate and demonstrate “the compatibility of its ideology with all fields of knowledge.”

While savage dictatorships in Nazi Germany and China played at the edges of harnessing science and its theories for the advancement of their ideological dogmas, nowhere was the attempt more comprehensive than in the Soviet Union. And nowhere before or since has a national leader involved himself in such detailed analyses of science and philosophy to assure their affinity with the conceptual underpinnings of his political power.

Stalin desperately wanted to put the fruits of scientific discovery and technological progress in service of the “first socialist country in the world,” and the role of scientists and engineers in that process was well understood by the regime. Communist ideology demanded that there be no contradictions between the laws of nature and the teachings of Marxist philosophy. Yet who was to interpret the issues inherent in the wide and very specific areas of scientific and technical research? Until the end of World War II, Stalin stayed rather aloof from such debates. But in the immediate postwar period his involvement intensified. Only Stalin, “the greatest philosopher ever,” would be the final judge.

During this time, Stalin’s hidden hand guided a tumultuous series of campaigns, which the Soviet leader himself orchestrated. To create the impression that open and rigorous scientific debate had produced a consensus on the fundamentals of Marxism and science, Stalin cleverly drew these communities out into the open. From 1945 to 1953, the Soviet authorities sponsored a number of highly visible campaigns focused on several major areas of the natural, social and political sciences.

The net effect on the development of each specific discipline was different. Physics, whose role in making the atomic bomb was critical, remained almost untouched.

Other disciplines were not so lucky. The result was the purging of scientists and the hijacking of whole areas of academic and scientific research. Theories that had drawn on Western rather than Russian thought were especially vulnerable.

Much has already been written about some of the most egregious cases of ideology run amok. Among the most famous is the “biological war” that was waged by pseudo-biologist Trofim Lysenko just after World War II.

His condemnation of the “bourgeois” nature of the chromosome had a devastating impact not only on this science but on Soviet agriculture more broadly.

So what was Stalin’s motivation in supporting this semi-literate homegrown agronomist who tried to kill contemporary genetics? It would be too easy to attribute it to the conceptual contradiction between Marxism’s unspecified environmental, evolutionary beliefs and Western-oriented genetics, which was based on the fundamentals of molecular biology.

Stalin, Pollock shows us, never bought Lysenko’s arguments on the “class nature” of this science. In the margins of a draft speech by the biologist, Stalin scoffed: “Ha-Ha-Ha!!! And what about Mathematics? And Darwinism?”

Rather, Stalin and the Party’s support for Lysenko was the outgrowth of the desperation that had set in once it was clear that collectivization had failed to transform Soviet agriculture. Stalin counted on Lysenko to provide practical, indeed miraculous, results for the food supply. This gamble, however, assured that vast armies of serious scientists would perish and that Soviet biology would be damaged for generations.

The story of what happened to the physics community is also well known. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stalin needed the bomb. Unlike the peculiarly nationalistic arguments advanced by Lysenkoites, Stalin had difficulty rejecting Western physicists’ discoveries, especially since he had personally instructed security-police chief Lavrenty Beria to steal their secrets. Soviet physics was saved, but not without considerable drama and risk to its key scientific players. The reprieve may have come because the Soviet regime needed these scientists, who were close to delivering an atomic device.

However, some important places like the physics department at Moscow State University, or MGU, were dominated by ardent critics of the best in modern (Western) physics, such as quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. While Pollock describes the intervention of the Soviet Union’s leading physicists, including Igor Kurchatov and Andrei Sakharov, he misses the role played by rebellious MGU students in demanding changes in the physics curriculum and in the roster of lecturers — a precursor of the independent thought that physicists would play decades later during perestroika.

With the death of Stalin, no Soviet leader was inclined to be the arbiter of all philosophical and scientific things.

“It was only a matter of time,” Pollock writes, “before some scientists used this privileged access to truth to challenge the rationality of the ideology and thus the legitimacy of the regime.”

While “Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars” foreshadows the hard lessons that the Soviet regime would learn from these policies, the story sometimes bogs down in too much detail. The reader also, inevitably, wishes to know some of the human story. The subject, for instance, begs more background on Stalin’s own missionary zeal (the result, perhaps, of his early years in a theological seminary) and how it evolved. Pollock tells us only that: “[Stalin’s] interest in science was too thorough and too consistent across time to be about politics alone. … [He wanted] to become a great theorist in the tradition of Marx, Engels, and Lenin.”

The book would have also been enriched by some of the Stalin generation’s stories, such as the one about the physicist Pyotr Kapitsa, who carried on an ironic correspondence with the Soviet leader while under house arrest. Or the tragic story of two brothers who were the pride of Soviet science — Nikolai and Sergei Vavilov. Nikolai was a leading geneticist and a staunch opponent of Lysenko. He perished in the gulag. Sergei, on the other hand, was a physicist who, at the behest of Stalin, served as chairman of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Their contrasting fates were emblematic of the times.

As the Soviet regime was to discover, science policy by fiat comes at great cost. For those scientists who did not successfully “deviate with the Party line,” as the Soviet anecdote went, it was their last mistake: “Countless scientists in every discipline miscalculated what ideologically correct science was supposed to look like. Stalin was the only person who could keep up with his own evolving interpretations.”

Pollock’s main contribution is in adding to what we know about Stalin’s involvement in these “wars” through analysis of his essays, notations and memos.

The result provides additional nuances and brings this cautionary tale to a new generation of readers. It does not, however, change our overall understanding of this epoch, which was chronicled by eyewitnesses and well documented in official Soviet publications.

As is so often the case in medicine: To determine the true diagnosis, one does not necessarily have to wait for the autopsy.

Susan Eisenhower is a co-author, with Roald Z. Sagdeev, of “The Making of a Soviet Scientist: My Adventures in Nuclear Fusion and Space From Stalin to Star Wars” and the author of “Partners in Space: U.S.-Russian Cooperation After the Cold War.”

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